Words and music

Those who wonder whether anyone is still interested in writing about the intersection of tones and language will be pleased to know that four recent books have lately crossed my desk in quick succession - all basically in that very camp.

Recent is a relative word, as none of these are truly new, although they have (re)appeared, seemingly in tandem, from different publishers. A 1982 title, still proudly promoted by Boston's Northeastern University Press, is Margaret G. Cobb's The Poetic Debussy: A Collection of His Song Texts and Selected Letters, with translations by Richard Miller. It is what it says it is and very satisfyingly places Claude Debussy back in perspective as a French song composer of pivotal importance and deep literary culture.

On the Teutonic side, we have an overwhelming volume from Limelight Editions, The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, which consists of original and English texts to 750 German songs (from Mozart to the 20th century), selected by the superstar of German Lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There is also an essay by him, sketching the history of the Lied, which manages at the same time to be both overconcise and long-winded. Full of unclear and pedantic sentences, it does little for Fischer-Dieskau's reputation as a historian.

I also found it a little off balance that both Cobb and Fischer-Dieskau receive the billing they do, while their excellent translators (George Bird and Richard Stokes in the Lieder volume) are due well more than the lion's share of credit for these two tomes - and are mentioned almost as afterthoughts. Incidentally, however, both sets of translations are so fine they put me in mind of Philip Miller's volume ''The Ring of Words,'' a quarter-century-old translation anthology of art songs in seven languages, which used to be the treasure of singers, accompanists, and teachers.

In addition to the Lieder anthology, Limelight has also released its edition of Fischer-Dieskau's 1976 Schubert's Songs: A Biographical Study (translated from the German by Kenneth S. Whitton). It very logically traces Schubert's life with his faucetlike output of songs as the connective thread. The professional singer's insights are jaluable, although the book is only a little less tedious than his essay on the Lied and suffers from an uncomfortable and outmoded worshipfulness.

But the prize of this catch was James Anderson Winn's Unexpected Eloquence: A History of the Relations Between Poetry and Music, a handsome paperback from Yale University Press (1981). Mr. Winn, a prodigious scholar and talented writer who teaches English literature at the University of Michigan, has here not just compared and combined the history of the relationship of words to music. He has also illuminated the millenniums-old tug of war between constructivism and expression - between words or music conceived for the intellect and those conceived for the beholding emotions.

The book dares much and reads well, although there are occasional weak spots. Loose metaphors crop up, such as his using ''musical word'' to mean a single musical chord in one instance, a whole composition in another. But his authority and surefootedness in both literature and music are stunning, as is his fence-riding restraint in recording the stormy tone-word marriage. Indeed, Mr. Winn's valuable book has the glow of a marriage counselor for poetry and music - in this age when both arts have been hobbled by their own internal conflicts over the emotional vs. the intellectual appeal. Truly a book of which I might say: Wish I'd written it.

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